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How to get out the vote

Published June 22, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's voter participation is abysmal. Last election, 952,004 eligible voices in this state were silent.

Even with the Mitt Romney bump, Utah ranked 39th in turnout among eligible voters, up from 48th in 2010. The hopes, dreams, opinions and aspirations of nearly 1 million people went unrepresented on Election Day.

The downward spiral in participation is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it has been a dangerous trend dating back 30 years, when Utah consistently ranked in the top 10 states for voter turnout.

Today, we've hit rock bottom, and it is putting our state, our democracy, and our future at risk.

Count My Vote is a proposal put on the table by a number of former Republican operatives under the pretext of solving Utah's voter participation woes.

Their strategy is to spend $1.5 million on a ballot initiative to allow candidates access to the ballot by going around political parties. It's ambitious, pokes the GOP powers-that-be and causes frustration among top Republicans.

Democrats are ambivalent, seeing the extremism and frustrations in the party caucus system stemming from a Republican civil war, tea party vs. Bob Bennett, hatred and anger vs. the old guard represented by former Govs. Mike Leavitt and Jon Huntsman.

However, Count My Vote does not really tackle voter participation. Utah's caucus system has been in place since statehood in 1896, and while participation rates have declined since 1980, there have not been any substantive changes to the system to account for the decline. The fact is, the caucus system has nothing to do with voter turnout.

Research, and common sense, say that when campaigns are competitive, voters turn out. It is why participation in presidential battleground states was 7 percent higher in 2012, why there was a 17.3 percent increase in turnout in Utah's 4th Congressional District (the highest percent increase in the state), and why Salt Lake County's participation rates are above nearly every other county in the state. Voters turn out when they believe they can have an impact on the outcome.

Utah's participation woes are a result of voters perceiving their vote doesn't matter. They are the result of decade after decade of the worst gerrymandering in the country. Our low participation rates are the result of immense gerrymandering that ensures safe Republican districts and limits voter incentives to be involved.

If Count My Vote is serious about addressing voter participation, it will include an Independent Redistricting Commission in its effort. Given the group's current messaging and where it is in the process, adding independent redistricting would have little to no impact on the cost, messaging or field plan. They are running a paid canvass and collecting signatures anyway.

Additionally, adding independent redistricting would enable County My Vote to mobilize the nearly 50,000 people who signed the 2009 Fair Boundaries petition. Another benefit: The Utah Democratic Party would proudly support the initiative.

The Democratic Party has approached the leaders of Count My Vote with this proposal — and we're challenging them again. If the group is serious about moderating the Legislature and increasing voter turnout, they'll add independent redistricting. They'll look beyond self-interest and face the real issue, not just play in the margins.

If not, then Count My Vote will remain an attempt by old-timers to regain the power they lost within their own party, thanks to a problem that they themselves created in order to carry the 2010 elections.

Matt Lyon is executive director of the Utah State Democratic Party.